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A Brief History of the Alligator Project

May 2002 Chief of Naval Research RADM Jay Cohen, Daniel J. Basta, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP), and Institute for Exploration Founder and President Dr. Robert Ballard discuss a magazine article, first noticed by Mrs. Cohen, about the Civil War-era U.S. Navy (USN) submarine USS Alligator -- a vessel that history has all but forgotten and about which little is known.
June 2002 RADM Jay Cohen, initiates a historical research project, to glean background information on the Alligator. Preliminary research is conducted by two University of Virginia interns, supervised by CAPT Woody Berzins of ONR’s Public Affairs Office.
July 02-Feb. 03 CDR Richard Poole of ONR leads an intensive research effort. In addition to conducting document searches at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Naval Historical Center, CDR Poole identifies and enlists the help of various individuals who had already written about the Alligator, including Jim Christley EMCS(SS), USN (Ret.) and Mark K. Ragan. From the National Archives alone, CDR Poole and Mr. Christley identify over 200 letters and other documents relating to the planning, construction and deployment of the Alligator.

Among the documents uncovered by CDR Poole is a letter dated 09 Apr 1863 from U.S.S. Sumpter from Acting Master J. Winchester to the Secretary of the Navy describing in detail the conditions that forced the crew of the towing vessel to cut the Alligator loose off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. as she was being towed to Charleston, South Carolina.
Aug.-Sep. 02 CAPT Berzins and CDR Poole confer with NMSP Senior Archaeologist Bruce Terrell, LTJG Jeremy Weirich and CAPT Craig McLean of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration to analyze historical documents found thus far—particularly the letters of 09 Apr 1863 that describe the storm and conditions surrounding the loss of the Alligator. With information in those letters, CAPT McClean and LTJG Weirich prepare an oceanographic chart to indicate where the vessel may have gone down.
Nov. 2002 At the urging of NMSP Director Dan Basta, U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) instructor LCDR Michiko Martin, USN, organizes interdisciplinary team of USNA midshipmen researchers to investigate the loss of the USS Alligator.
Nov. 25, 2002 CDR Poole organizes the first meeting of a “steering committee” to conduct preliminary planning for further investigation into the Alligator. Held at ONR, the meeting is attended RADM Malcolm MacKinnon (Ret.), Jim Christley, Mark Ragan as well as by representatives of NOAA and ONR. At the meeting, RADM announces his intention of co-sponsoring an education symposium on the Alligator.
Jan.-April 2003 Under the direction of Michiko Martin, now with NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, and USNA Professor Peter Guth, a team of midshipmen conducts independent research on the USS Alligator.
Feb. 2003 CDR Poole and Mr. Christley conduct a two-day historical research field trip in Philadelphia. As a result of their research at the National Archives and the Pennsylvania Historical Society, they find important personal information regarding the Alligator’s designer, French inventor Brutus De Villeroi. Among the documents found is an 1860 census entry, in which De Villeroi lists his occupation as “natural genius.”
March 2003 At the direction of RADM Cohen, CDR Poole writes a brochure entitled “Secrets of the U.S.S. Alligator,” summarizing the history of the vessel. The brochure is to be used to further raise public awareness about the submarine.
April 2, 2003 A second, much larger steering committee meeting is held at ONR. Eighteen people participate in the four-hour gathering—including representatives of ONR, NOAA, the Naval Academy, the Navy Historical Center, and well as interested individuals such as Mark Ragan and Jim Christley. The four Midshipmen from USNA present preliminary finding of their oceanographic research on the loss of the Alligator.
April 28, 2003 Midshipmen researchers present their research at the United States Naval Academy.
May 27, 2003 A search for Alligator-related documents leads Catherine Marzin of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program to the Service Historique de la Marine (SHM) naval historical archive in Vincennes, France, where she obtains copies of original letters and blueprints drafted by the Alligator’s inventor, Brutus de Villeroi. The blueprints are believed to be the equivalent to the designer’s original Booklet of General Plans for the USS Alligator, and are the only plans of the Alligator known to exist.
June 2003 Funded by the Office of Naval Research and managed by NMSP and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration, a 50-hour research cruise is conducted on NOAA’s R/V Littlehales (now Thomas Jefferson).
June 11-12, 2003 ONR and NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program sponsor a well-received USS Alligator exhibit at the Navy Submarine League’s Annual Symposium. Among the features of the exhibit is a detailed (1:24) model of the Alligator’s first configuration (with oars), crafted by Jim Christley.
July 2003 Larrie Ferreiro, of the ONR International Field Office (London), travels to France to conduct further historical research on Brutus de Villeroi. Specifically, he goes to Nantes, where de Villeroi spent much of his life, and finds new personal and occupational information on the inventor. During this trip, he also recruits the assistance of Alexander Sheldon Duplaix of the SHM in Vincennes.
Aug. 4-5, 2003 An Alligator display is featured at the ONR-sponsored conference at the Reagan Center, Washington, D.C.
Oct. 17, 2003 ONR and NOAA hold the first-ever symposium on the USS Alligator at the Historic Ship Nautilus and Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. The symposium brings together naval historians, maritime archaeologists, marine resource managers, oceanographers, artists, documentary filmmakers, and ocean explorers to share information and new findings about the Alligator. At the event, SHM’s Alexandre Sheldon Duplaix presents the Submarine Force Museum with photographs of the original Alligator blueprints.

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